One of the go-to sketch settings for the Bible Players, an educational comedy group dedicated to transmitting Jewish values and lessons to audiences of all ages, is what Aaron Friedman calls “well scenes.”
Moses and Zipporah, Rachel and Jacob, Rebecca and Eliezer — the list of biblical well encounters go on and on. They’ve got sparks of romance, sheep, camels and more.
For Friedman and his lifelong comedy partner and friend, Andrew Davies, those scenes are rife with the sort of humor that they’ve enjoyed for decades, and that now forms the basis of the Bible Players’ work.
“Necessity,” Friedman said, “is the imma of invention.”
The Bible Players are a project of Friedman, 37, and Davies, 35. They started the group in 2011 as a way to combine their great loves: Judaism and making jokes. In the beginning, they performed largely for schools and camps, flexing the improv muscles they’d developed as overworked summer camp counselors at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York.
Now, the Bible Players are a miniature Jewish-comedy empire, a troupe of eight that performs and leads professional development for Jewish educators across the country. It’s been a long journey to get here.
Friedman was a student at the Forman Center, and Davies attended the Stern Center (both were then Solomon Schechter, and are now Perelman Jewish Day School); both attended Akiba Hebrew Academy (now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy), performing in shows together as they both developed a love for comedy. Both cite watching “Seinfeld” with their families as foundational to their respective senses of humor, and both can recall specific sketches they wrote for class while at Akiba.
And who could blame them? If you’d come up with the Simchat Torah Network (“All Simchat Torah, All the Time”) like Davies did, you’d remember that, too.
“I’ve kind of always been a goofball,” Davies said.
Goofball-ness aside, both Davies and Friedman had a sense of the interplay between their mutual interests in comedy and Judaism from a young age.
Friedman discovered comedy around the same time that he learned to read Torah, and theorizes now that it was a similar sort of confidence that allows him to do both. And for Davies, his time at Akiba helped him pinpoint what it is about comedy and Judaism that draws him so strongly to both.
“I really credit the pluralistic Jewish education of Akiba in allowing me to make Judaism my own and bring my goofiness to Judaism,” he said.
After high school, Friedman went off to List College (JTS/Columbia), and Davies headed to Brandeis University, where he studied English literature. Friedman studied creative writing and Jewish studies.
“Those two majors,” he said, “qualify me for … well, literally, the only job I can think of is what I’m doing right now.”
It wasn’t until after college that they really reconnected, when they had both moved to New York. Friedman was teaching, while Davies assisted the city of New York in investigating police officers, “one of the least funny jobs you can imagine,” Davies said. On the side, they wrote comedy with a group they formed called the Rapscallions.
In 2011, Davies got work acting in anti-bullying show for students. He was enthused by the idea of values-based comedy, and talked over the idea with Friedman. Out of that conversation, the Bible Players were born.
Over the next few years, Friedman and Davies wrote sketches and performed improv all over the country for Jewish groups, developing new wrinkles along the way; after they saw a demand for a show for adults, they created their Unkosher Comedy Show (rated reish, as they say) and developed programming appropriate for college students.
Synagogues began to hire them for whole weekends, and they started to think more seriously about their show’s education portion. Since then, Friedman earned a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he and Davies lead workshops for teachers that stress how valuable improv can be.
And as these things go, complications arose. Davies moved back to Philadelphia a few years ago, while Friedman stayed in New York. They wondered if that would spell the end of the Bible Players.
Instead, the group grew. They added six new Bible Players, each trained by Friedman and Davies; some are in New York, and others are in Philadelphia.
Now, they can be two places at once. A few weekends ago, Friedman was at Tiferes B’nai Israel in Warrington with one Bible Player, while Davies led a professional development weekend for teachers in Clearwater, Florida, alongside a newer Bible Player, Alison Ormsby.
Ormsby, a University of the Arts graduate, was introduced to Davies through his wife, Molly Wernick, who was once Ormsby’s camp counselor at Camp Galil. The opportunity to mix acting with tikkun olam, she said, was one she couldn’t pass up.
“I’m really interested in acting for the sake of bettering the community,” Ormsby said.
It’s not yet clear what the future will be for the Bible Players, though Davies dreams of a West Coast-based team. In the meantime, they’ll keep goofing around for Jews across the country, and maybe teach something, too.